Professor Ross Garnaut’s Lecture at UWA (2 June 2011)

Professor Ross Garnaut, the nation’s chief independent climate advisor, doesn’t believe in worrying about the things he cannot change. He just works “quite hard” on the things he can. Western Australians were treated to an example of his hard work yesterday as he packed 3 engagements into half a day in Perth.

In his evening lecture at UWA, he examined what changes, if any, have occurred to the climate and to the world’s capacity to deal with it since the publication of his 2008 Climate Change Review. He told a capacity lecture theatre that the science has become grimmer but the technologies to deal with climate change have improved and continue to do so.

For video and audio of the full lecture click here. Professor Garnaut’s lecture will also be re-broadcast at the Piazza Screen in Northbridge on Sunday 12 June, at 3pm. The text below quickly summarizes the lecture.

Professor Garnaut said that with no binding international agreement and a national political landscape buffeted by struggles over policy, the saving grace in Australia had been community interest and action that demanded efforts from politicians to deal with climate change.

The minimum that Australia should be aiming for is to catch up with the rest of the world, which has already embarked on a path to mitigate global warming … and now that’s the maximum possible, with there being no risk that Australia might overtake or outdo any other nation.

The disruptions caused by unchecked global warming will be so devastating that ultimately there will be no havens anywhere in the world. Australia, already a country of climate extremes, will experience more losses than all other developed nations, yet we lag behind in taking action to reduce the effects of climate change.

Professor Garnaut pointed out that Australia is also a drag on the rest of the world. Reminding us that information about the actions of other countries are simply a mouse-click away, he provided an overview of mitigation efforts in the US, the UK, Europe, and China.

Norway, a country rich in fossil fuels, introduced a carbon price in the 90s and now has emissions of about 10 tonnes per person. Australia’s are 27 tonnes per head; nearly three times as large. The UK have committed to reducing emissions by 50% by 2025, and China is likewise aiming for huge cuts between 2005 and 2020. Professor Garnaut’s work with the US government leaves him in no doubt as to its commitment to carbon reduction, which is mirrored at the state level, for example California.

Member states of the EU, representing half of the people in the world living in economic conditions comparable to Australians, have had a carbon price since 2005. That the US and China don’t have such a price is sometimes trotted out as a reason for Australia to avoid one. However, Garnaut notes, their current mitigation strategies are more expensive than a carbon price. Refusing to adopt a price because these countries don’t have one is akin to promising to keep shooting ourselves in the foot as long as they do.

Professor Garnaut recommends that Australia start with a carbon price fixed for around three years until there is international certainty about trade and entitlements. 55% of revenue raised from the carbon price would be directed to low- and middle-income households as an incentive for them to reduce electricity use.

Of course, a price on carbon will also provide an impetus for a move to less carbon-intensive ways of producing electricity. Trade-exposed industries would initially receive blanket assistance of almost 30% of revenue. Ultimately this assistance would be governed by clear economic principles. About $2.5b would be invested in the development of low emissions technologies.

Perhaps the most crucial point of Professor Garnaut’s lecture was that to avoid severe disruption to the global climate, we need to do a lot more than we are now. He notes that the issues of climate change will remain, but our chances of dealing with them at reasonable cost will not.

We need to take a leaf from his book and all start working ‘quite hard’ to ensure that we deal with climate change to alleviate the effects we will otherwise all feel, economically, socially and physically.

Prior to his evening lecture, Professor Garnaut participated in a conversation with about a dozen experts and academics from Western Australian universities. Excerpts of that conversation will be made available on The Conversation in the near future.